Practical Atheism

Sermon for the 27th week in Ordinary Time at First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is Matthew 21:33-46.

Click here to listen to the audio at!

As many of you already know, being the pastor of First Presbyterian Church is only one of my jobs.  I also teach philosophy at Utica College.  Let me tell you: it’s a fun job.  I love the friendly banter I get to have with my students.  I love challenging them to think outside the box and grow as human beings.  One of my favorite memories came on the first day of class a few semesters ago.  I was sitting at the front of the room, stapling papers, when my first student arrived early and sat down.  The first words out of his mouth were, “My name is Josh and I am an atheist!”  Now, it’s important for you to know that the vast majority of my students don’t know that I’m a pastor.  I try to keep that piece of information to myself in order to maintain an open and unbiased atmosphere in the classroom.  So Josh had no idea who he was talking to.  He told me about his favorite atheist authors and I recommended a few others he might like.  At the end of the conversation, he told me he was glad that his philosophy class was being taught by me and not “some Christian moron”.  I just smiled and kept on stapling my papers.

Over the next few weeks, Josh and I continued to develop a healthy teacher-student rapport.  Then one day, he came into my office and was making small-talk.  And he asked me if I was an atheist like him.

“Actually no,” I said.  He looked surprised.

“Really,” he said, “What are you then?”  And without saying a word, I just reached into my pocket and put my clerical collar on.  For the next few seconds, he was speechless.  He just sat there with his mouth hanging open.  The look on his face was priceless.  I’m happy to say that my newly-discovered clerical status didn’t damage my professional relationship with Josh.  To this day, he and I maintain a lively connection based on mutual respect.

There are those who might say, “Barrett, how is that possible?  He’s an atheist and you’re a Christian!  Aren’t you afraid that this might somehow compromise the integrity of your faith?”

And my answer is no.  I’m not afraid of that at all.

Honest skepticism poses no threat to Christianity whatsoever.  God can handle doubt.

That being said, I do think there is a particular kind of atheism that does pose a threat to authentic faith, but it’s not the kind of atheism that you’re likely to find in the halls of the ivory tower, the ranks of the Communist Party, or the meetings of the Secular Humanist Association.  The kind of atheism that poses a real threat to Christianity is the kind you find in church.  I’m not talking about atheism by philosophy or belief.  I’m talking about practical atheism, where otherwise religious people, even Christians, live their everyday lives as if God didn’t exist.  Practical atheists read the Bible, receive the sacraments, say their prayers, and recite the creed with sincerity and devotion.

Right now, it would be easy for me to offer some example of a publicly religious personality who was caught in some major scandal or hypocrisy.  Those stories certainly are tragic, but saddest of all are those who never fall prey to such public humiliation.  They’re upstanding citizens and model Christians.  They go through the motions so well that even they don’t realize that they are actually practical atheists.

Jesus knew people like this.  He reached out to them, connected with them, and invited them into a deeper experience of who God really is.  He told them this story:

Once upon a time there was an entrepreneur who started up an elaborate winery and leased it out to tenants for management.  Already, in this first sentence, we have an insight about the nature of God versus the nature of practical atheism.  Practical atheists are quick to use the word “my”: my church, my tradition, my house, my family, etc.  But, if we take the entrepreneur to be a symbol for God, we see that God is the one who started all this.  This is God’s church.  Two hundred years ago, God began to do something in Boonville through the people of this church.  Today, their mission has been passed to us, but we don’t own it.  We are tenants here who have been given stewardship for the moment.  Each of us plays a part, but God is the one with the master plan.  This is a simple and obvious truth that is too easily forgotten in the fog of maintenance and administration.  We need to remember that nothing in this church exists for its own sake.  Everything is a tool for participating in God’s mission project here in Boonville.  Just like the landowner in Jesus’ story built the vineyard for a purpose, God built this church for a purpose.

Back to the story itself, these tenants forget just whose vineyard it is anyway.  The absentee landlord sends multiple employees in succession to the vineyard for a progress update and the tenants treat each one worse than the one before.  When the landlord sends his own son at last, they say, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.”  The only way this logic makes any sense is if the tenants assume that the landlord has died.  Only then would they have a shot at “get[ting] his inheritance”.  In the same vein, Jesus’ audience of practical atheists must have (at some level) assumed that God is dead (or unreal), in spite of their outward religious fervency.  They mistook themselves for the owners of God’s vineyard and forgot that they were merely tenants.

Any remnant of God that remains in their minds becomes shrunken and twisted so that their idea of God looks very much like their idea of themselves.  When Jesus asks them what the vineyard owner (God) will do to the wicked tenants (them), they reply in no uncertain terms, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”  Let’s listen to that again: this is what God looks like to them: they assume that God is the one who “will put those wretches to a miserable death”.  This deity, while technically just and powerful, is small-minded and unsympathetic (not unlike the Pharisees themselves).

Jesus confronts this faulty image of God with all the care and compassion in his heart.  If you look closely at the text, he never affirms the Pharisees’ idea of a God who “will put those wretches to a miserable death”.  Instead, the first words out of his mouth are, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?”  Jesus quotes from the sacred text of their own religious tradition and presents the living God as one who accepts unacceptable people and honors outcasts and rejects.  The God of Jesus does not seem to show much interest in putting “wretches to a miserable death”.  Jesus’ God would rather go looking for that tossed-aside piece of broken cement so that it can be treated with special care and honor.  This is what the living God is really like, according to Jesus.

The one part of the Pharisees’ response that Jesus agrees with is the part about “leas[ing] the vineyard to other tenants”.  Jesus tells them, “[T]he kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”  This sounds like punishment at first, but isn’t it liberating in the end?  Isn’t Jesus setting them free from bondage to the leased vineyard that has now become a spiritual burden?  Without that albatross around their necks, they will be free to see God more clearly.  Perhaps this is what they need in order to stop seeing God as the one who “[puts] wretches to a miserable death” and start seeing God as the one who receives outcasts and honors rejects.  By taking way their religious power, Jesus is curing the chief priests and Pharisees of their practical atheism.  I think God is doing the same thing for all of us.

Honestly, I think we’re all practical atheists at some level or another.  We like to trick ourselves into thinking that we’re self-made individuals who can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  We like to cast ourselves as the hero in our own story.  We are apt to forget that we are merely tenants in God’s vineyard and think of ourselves instead as the owners.  In short, we’re trying to play God.  Into this fog of delusion comes the real and living God.  We’re terrified because we assume that God is coming in order to put us “wretches to a miserable death”, but instead this seeker of rejected cornerstones is coming to liberate us, not punish us.

So, how do we apply this cure for practical atheism in our own lives?  How do we embrace the liberation that God has in store for us?  How do we get in touch with this living God?

As it turns out, there’s not much to it at all.  We don’t have to go far to find the living God because God is already here.  The apostle Paul tells us Romans 11 that God is the source, guide, and goal of all things.  It is in God that we all “live, move, and have our being.”  As long as there is air in your lungs, the living God is present and active in your life.

We don’t need to do much of anything to get God’s attention either.  Just as God is not intimidated by honest skepticism in the classroom, God is also not impressed by pious posturing in church.  Jesus taught people that there’s no need to “heap up empty phrases” when they pray because God “knows what you need before you ask”.

So, in the end, the cure for practical atheism is as simple as what Jesus taught his followers in Luke 11:

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

So, if you feel like that’s you today: the practical atheist who is just going through the motions of spirituality, why not take some time this week for a little open-minded asking, searching, and knocking?  You might just be surprised at the gifts you receive, the treasures you find, and the doors that open up for you.

7 thoughts on “Practical Atheism

  1. “but instead this seeker of rejected cornerstones is coming to liberate us, not punish us.”

    Liberate us from what, exactly? How can one be liberated by a being who supposedly created the thing we are being liberated from?

  2. Pingback: Just the Five of Us « I Am with you always

  3. John Schmidt

    Thought provoking treatment. I can’t agree more about the insidious danger of practical atheism, and of how we are all guilty.

  4. Good question, NotAScientist:
    In the context of this parable, I would suggest that the “tenants” (chief priests and Pharisees) are being liberated from the “vineyard” (Israel) over which they have assumed a false sense of ownership. I would suggest that their collective ego had exalted them to the point where they had lost sight of who they really were and what this whole “vineyard” project was supposed to be about.

    FYI, vineyard imagery is often used for the community of Israel in the Tanakh. Extending the image into the New Testament, I think Jesus is intending it to mean the continuous community of God’s people, inclusive of Israel and the church, hence the phrase “kingdom of God/heaven” which appears immediately before and after this passage.

    The “liberation” in this parable takes place when the vineyard is taken away from the tenants (i.e. when ownership of the divine community is returned to the One to whom it truly belongs), thus freeing the inhabitants to faithfully enjoy and participate in the blessing of life without the compulsive need to control it.

    I’m not sure I understand the second part of your question. Could you clarify?

    1. To be honest, I’m rereading and I’m not exactly sure what I meant either. 🙂

      I think, more than anything else, I was trying to connect your point to actual atheism and not just ‘practical atheism’. Which may have been stretching your topic beyond where it was intended.

      Now, rereading it again, maybe I understand.

      Let’s put you, hypothetically, in the position of a person with power.

      You create a prison, and you send me to it. Or you enact rules that I disobey, or can’t obey, and am sent there automatically. Then you, who made the prison and the rules in the first place, take me out of the prison to somewhere else where I am still completely in your power.

      The phrase “a gilded cage is still a cage” moves through my mind when I think about that.

      How can someone be your liberator if they are the ones who imprisoned you in the first place?

      1. OK, I think I see what you’re getting at. And yes, it’s pretty far afield from the point I was trying to make, but still a rabbit worth chasing, so let’s go for it!

        If I’m hearing you correctly, the typical biblical form of your argument might go something like this: If God created and put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden knowing they would fall, is not God then responsible for their sin? If God is responsible, then how can God be trusted as humanity’s Savior from sin? On the other hand, if God is responsible, then how could God blame anyone else for sin?

        I won’t spent too much time on this one because much of the argument assumes the literal existence of a physical Garden of Eden populated by two homo sapiens named Adam and Eve. I don’t personally believe that Eden, Adam, and Eve are historically factual realities, ergo the point is moot for me.

        Philosophically speaking, it’s the classic problem with classical theism:
        One deity who is simultaneously omnipotent and entirely good.
        Without denying the reality of evil, one is left to conclude one of two things:
        1. God wants to prevent evil and end suffering but is powerless to do so.
        2. God could prevent evil and end suffering at any time but doesn’t give the proverbial rat’s posterior.

        John L. Mackie (who is an atheist) gives this issue a brilliant treatment in his contemporary classic, ‘The Miracle of Theism’. Whenever I meet fans of Dawkins and Hitchens, I try to steer them toward Mackie’s work. He does a much better job of refuting theism than Dawkins (who I like to describe as the Pat Robertson of Secular Humanism). If one is going to be an atheist, one should be a better atheist than Richard Dawkins.

        Your question,”How can someone be your liberator if they are the ones who imprisoned you in the first place?” Assumes the omnipotence of God at the expense of God’s goodness. Personally, I choose to assume the opposite.

        I’m not a classical theist. I have no trouble sacrificing (or at least radically redefining) the concept of omnipotence. Even if God at one time possessed the quality of absolute omnipotence, God apparently lost (or gave up) that quality by creating beings that possess consciousness and free will. As such, human beings are co-creators with God (to a limited extent) in the ongoing process of universe-formation. God has no direct and absolute power over what we do. If omnipotence is retained in any degree, it should reformulated in terms of ‘infinite adaptability’. In other words, God is able to work with and around any amount of chaos created by other free and conscious beings.

        Evangelical theologian Clark Pinnock has done some interesting work related to this question in formulating what has come to be known as ‘Open Theism’.

        Because I don’t share the assumption of absolute omnipotence, my answer to your question is that I don’t believe the liberator is the one who imprisoned me in the first place. As my friend Reed Thomas once put it, “Lead me not into temptation; I can find the way myself.”

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